Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Star Wars

In 2007, forty years after the fact, film critic Jim Emerson wrote: “To see Star Wars in 1977 was to experience a moment in pop culture that seemed universal.” He added:

"Sure, the movie was criticized for being infantile, but that misses the point. It's aimed at a sensibility somewhere between infancy and the second year of college (or high school). A space fantasy with the emphasis on interstellar swashbuckling (and with romantic mush kept to a minimum), "Star Wars" appealed to the 3- to 12-year-old boy in all of us -- and still does."

Universal? I beg to differ.

When Star Wars came out, I was 25. I went, I saw, I liked.  But I found it difficult to get excited about a film with non-actors like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in prominent roles. (It didn't seem to make much difference.) It seemed to me, furthermore, that the plot really had nothing on Errol Flynn movies like Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Dawn Patrol. (It's no secret that the plot to Star Wars was lifted from a minor samurai film, The Hidden Fortress, by a major Japanese director, Akiru Kurasawa.)

I found it a little disturbing that so many film-goers--even adult film-goers--were getting so revved up about such a "minor" movie.

To give the film credit,  Star Wars was refreshingly, unabashedly simple, and the effects were certainly cool—though not nearly so cool as the effects in 2001: a Space Odyssey. Star Wars was entertaining in the same way the pulp novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the westerns of Earnest Haycox and Louis Lamour that I'd read in junior high school were entertaining. But it wasn't deep or challenging or stimulating, the way I knew films could sometimes be.

Before long journalist Bill Moyers and classical scholar Joseph Campbell had teamed up to create an elaborate exposition of the mythic dimension in the original Star Wars trilogy for public television. In the course of five or six hour-long shows they examined all sorts of religious myths, all the while underscoring the underlying similarities. They also explored the psychic need many of us feel to reconnect with such templates of deep meaning and truth.

It was a good show, surprisingly literate, global, and ecumenical for the time. (I still have a copy on VHS tapes somewhere in the basement.) But that didn't make Star Wars a great or even a "mature" film. It was still a comic book.  Thirty-five years later, I've seen quite a few cinema comic-books—some far better than others.

At the time—so the argument goes—Star Wars brought a breath of fresh air into a dark and moribund film industry. I don't remember it that way, and looking back at the films of the mid 1970s, I see that it isn't true. Scanning a list of the top 100 films of 1977 alone, I spot nearly every kind of film being made today, including a SNL-esque comedy (Kentucky Fried Movie), a dark and grisly "date" movie (Looking for Mr. Goodbar), a cinema remake of a Neil Simon Broadway blockbuster (The Goodbye Girl), a Ridley Scott adaptation of a minor literary classic (Joseph Conrad's The Duellists), a trendy youth film (Saturday Night Fever), a sci fi potboiler (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), a jazzy star-driven musical (Martin Scorcese's New York, New York), and a far-out Robert Altman film (Three Women).

Star Wars would not be out of place on this robust list, but nor would it stand out. It definitely breathed new life into that moribund genre, the space opera.

The art house crowd of 1977 might have been satisfied by one of Truffaut's lesser films (The Man Who Loved Women), a slightly stodgy Italian drama with a gay protagonist (Etore Scola's A Special Day), or a wild and crazy film by the young Werner Herzog (Strozek).

The three best films of the year, in my opinion, were Woody Allen's comic masterpiece, Annie Hall, William Friedkin's adventure masterpiece, Sorcerer, and perhaps Wim Wenders last really good movie, The American Friend.

We've made arrangements to see the new Star Wars episode with some friends on Friday afternoon. But another film is showing at the same time at the same theater. It's called Theeb. It takes place in the Arabian desert in 1916. A British soldier, a nomadic tribesman, a little boy, some camels, a poisoned well, a railroad terminal. I've seen it, but the other haven't.

Let me tell you. It's great.  


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